It’s safe to say climate change is not on the Conservative Party conference agenda this year. If you showed up just 12 minutes late to Monday afternoon’s main event, you would’ve missed energy secretary Amber Rudd entirely. And indeed, it seems quite a few people did.
In contrast, there were enormous queues seen in the morning ahead of the big speech on the economy by chancellor George Osborne. Rudd addressed a room that felt three-quarters full.
As one conference attendee noted while waiting: “Climate is obviously not the biggest draw.” It felt like a show’s opening act as everyone waited for the main agenda: local government.
Readers will hardly need reminding that five years ago David Cameron urged the electorate to sack Gordon Brown and the Labour government and trust instead his personal commitment to deliver action on climate change: vote blue go green, was the sound bite.
The speech itself focused heavily on the importance of the consumer. “For conservatives, our energy policy should once again be driven by the people who pay the bills. The consumer, the consumer, the consumer,” Rudd said.
“We are clear that moving to a low carbon economy is key to our long term economic growth and environmental prosperity.
“But I am also clear that this must be done in the most cost-effective way possible. While people support a transition to a low carbon future they don’t support this at any cost. There is no magic money tree.”
As a whole, her speech felt more defensive than inspiring. This is understandable – there have been many changes to energy policy since May which many people disagree with.
“Some characterise these changes as motivated by ideological opposition to anything green. Nothing would be further from the truth,” Rudd said. “Our approach is very different to the hapless UKIP candidate who asked ‘what happens when renewables run out?’”
She continued: “I support cutting subsidies not because I’m an anti-green conservative but because I’m a proud green conservative on the side of the consumer.”
Don’t Say ‘Paris’
But, as we enter the last two months leading to the international Paris climate conference, inspiration – not excuses – is what we need. How is our government taking the lead in tackling the immense challenge that is climate change?
This is the point where I realised that the speech’s significance is to be found in what is missing as much as what was said.
There was no mention of Paris. On this issue, Rudd was silent.
In fact, there really wasn’t much new in her speech at all. Repeating points made during her speech at inusrance company Aviva’s conference in July, Rudd said climate change shouldn’t just be a left-wing issue. And instead of finding inspiring, powerful words of her own, she simply quoted Margaret Thatcher: “The danger of global warming is real enough for us to make changes and sacrifices so that we do not live at the expense of future generations.”
And beyond defending renewable energy subsidy cuts, there was no mention of what policies will be put in place to reassure investors and the public that low carbon energy has a future in Britain.
Rather than seizing the opportunity to announce new energy policies in the wake of this summer’s cuts (as the Committee on Climate Change recently urged government must do or risk failing to meet our carbon targets) Rudd went on to promote shale gas as a low carbon transition fuel that will be good for jobs, good for the consumer, and good for energy security. Nuclear was mentioned too.
So, at a time when the realities of climate change are both frightening and overwhelming, Rudd’s speech embodies the government’s new approach: say very little and say the same thing over and over again.
But with so many people around the world waiting for action, I find myself sitting in the conference auditorium asking one question: who here really cares?